How to buy a printer

What you print, and how much of it you print, should guide your buying decision. We explain how to choose a printer that's appropriate for your needs.

Printer Shopping Tips

Shopping considerations include the cost of cartridge or toner refills. We'll also list things to watch out for when shopping for an inkjet or a laser printer.

Refilling the Tank: Ink and Toner Cartridges

Some people suggest that you can save significantly on the cost of printing each page by buying ink and toner made by a company other than your printer's manufacturer. That's fine, if you want just the cheapest possible printing for short-lived documents. If print quality is paramount, however, you're taking a risk. For example, at the temperatures applied by your printer's engine, generic toner may not fix to the paper as well as the manufacturer's compound. The result could be poorly shaped characters and gray banding across the page — and that's not a great way to impress a potential customer.

Several laser printer manufacturers sell toner cartridges at a discount if you return empty cartridges for recycling. Lexmark, for instance, charges $115 for each 3000-page color cartridge for its C534n model if you return it, but a nonreturnable version costs $145. In part, this policy is intended to discourage customers from refilling the cartridges, but it can also help save the environment.

Other manufacturers have programs for recycling their inkjet and toner cartridges. For example, HP includes postage-paid shipping materials with most of its printers for returning used cartridges, but you can also order them from its Web site. Brother and Oki offer similar programs through their Web sites. Konica Minolta includes prepaid shipping labels with its new cartridges for returning the used part.

Your local school or charity may participate in a collection program that helps it raise funds. You can also look for an office supply store that pays you a small sum or offers a discount in exchange for refillable cartridges. Check out our report for other tips on staying green.

Inkjet Printer Considerations

Speed: Manufacturers often list faster print speed specifications on their packaging than we see in testing.

Photo printing: If you plan to print mostly photos, look for inkjets with features such as media card readers, a paper tray that fits photo paper, and an LCD panel that allows you to view and print an image without using your PC. Also look for bundled image editing software.

Laser Printer Considerations

Text only? If you print lots of text-only documents, consider buying an inexpensive monochrome laser printer. They're very simple and affordable to operate, and these days even the least-expensive monochrome lasers consistently pass our rigorous tests for quality output and performance.

High-yield cartridges: When buying toner for laser printers, seek out high-yield cartridges. Many manufacturers produce cartridges for the same printer that come in larger capacities at a better price.

Print speed: PC World tests consistently find that color laser printers generate color graphics more slowly than the manufacturers claim they do.

Recyclability: Most printer vendors accept spent toner cartridges for recycling. Make sure your vendor has a recycling program in place, or explore options through your local office store or recycling center.

Snapshot Printer Considerations

Speed: You buy these printers for fun rather than for speed. If you need faster output, buy an inkjet with a paper tray that fits photo paper. Manufacturers often list faster print speed specifications on their packaging than we see in testing.

Features: Look for a bright, well-designed LCD panel with menus that allow you to select and print your photos easily without a PC. Make sure the printer you're interested in has a slot for your specific media card.

Overall value: Look for snapshot printers that handle paper sizes up to 5 by 7 inches and have a lower cost per page; the lowest we've seen recently is about 25 cents per photo.

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